The ‘No Vote’ Perspective

The “no vote” people could not organise themselves under the red or the yellow banner for a number of good reasons.

By | Fri 28 Feb 2014

The Thai national election on 2 February 2014 was a reluctant event. None of the pundits in Thai media thought it was going to go well, and they were right. People who went to vote were not entirely convinced that the election, at the time, was a relevant process in forming the next government. The media was calling it the weirdest election in Thai history. But the unofficial results tell a very interesting story. Valid votes were reduced by half compared to the 2011 election (from 67.7 percent to 34) and those who cast “no votes” had more than doubled in just three years (from three percent to eight). This makes the “no vote” people one of the fastest growing minorities in political Thailand. Mind you, eight percent for a minority group is a serious number; for comparison, about 14 percent of the Thai population lives in Bangkok.

People who voted “no” were neither yellow nor red. [Ed. With recent white masks, national flag wearing protesters and all sorts of other colours making their presence and politics known, our contibutor has chosen the simplistic, but clear, red/yellow divide for this article’s purposes.] This is obvious because there was not much reason for the yellow groups to participate in the election. Their leader was obstructing it. Their political party boycotted it. But the “no vote” people went to the poll anyway. At the poll, they did not vote for the government, and that excluded them from the red movement.

The “no vote” people could not organise themselves under the red or the yellow banner for a number of good reasons. One of the most surprising viewpoints they found is that both yellow and red shared many common grounds. A cynical one being that leaders on both sides have tendencies to get caught up in complicated legal processes and become fugitives: the Thai government is a hazardous workplace for politicians. The yellow leadership may have to take responsibility for the death of an Italian journalist and many others in the crackdown on red shirt protesters in 2010.  Red leadership may also have to take responsibility for corruption in the rice pledging scheme. Who knows?  But a clever way to resolve this issue, Thai style, is by running a government in exile. The red do it from Dubai. The yellow might have to do it from London.

Another less cynical common ground is that both sides are more or less pro-democracy. Judging by how they call themselves, the red shirt movement is backed by a pressure group, United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) and the yellow shirt movement is backed by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC). But there are clear ideological differences when it comes to identifying threats to Thai democracy. The yellow shirt people feel that corrupt politicians are to blame and the red shirts feel that the powers of non-elected institutions are the bigger problem. In this argument, both groups are probably right. Those are valid, textbook threats to a democracy. There is no big secret here. But democracy and ideological issues aside, many people in Thailand have a genuine discontent with Yingluck’s government’s ability to do things and achieve results.

Thailand is a rice country. It is very much in our cultural identity. Historically, the business of running or ruling this land was about managing the relationship between rice producers and rice consumers. To the present day, this is still the most important function of any Thai government. Rice is important to all of us and the rice relationship should be managed with respect. Through this lens, the rice pledging scheme was more than a botched government programme. It was culturally hurtful. But Yingluck defended her role in the programme as strictly that of a policymaker, with no mandate to order the executors what to do. To be fair, not getting Thai administration to do what they are supposed to do is a problem that plagues leaderships of both colours.

The Ministry of Culture is a good example of how difficult it is to administrate the Thai government.  I will use the censorship story of Ayodhya, an operatic adaptation of Ramayana, great Sanskrit epic poem, by Thai composer Somtow Sucharitkul, as the case in point. The story of the Ayodhya censorship came out in late 2006. At the time, Thaksin’s government was just ousted by a coup. According to DPA, the German press agency, western democracies were on the lookout for signs of repression in the aftermath of the coup and saw the censoring of an opera as a curious role for a ministry charged with promoting the arts. The censorship story immediately became international news.

However, Somtow insisted that the signs of repression the western democracies were looking for were in the ministry itself. It had nothing to do with the military junta. Kraisak Choonhavan, a former senator who helped establish the ministry, said to DPA, “The law does not empower the Ministry of Culture to censor at all, but empowers them to support all arts.”  Both Kraisak and Somtow agreed that the ministry’s decision to censor the opera was inappropriate and they blamed the bureaucrats.

Following the coup, Khunying Kaisri Sriaroon, wife of a Navy general, was appointed head of the Ministry of Culture. To be fair, the ministry was protecting the powers that be from bad luck because the opera had broken with revered Ramayana tradition. Somtow intended to show the death of Thotsakan (Ravana) on stage which was a taboo in that tradition and Khunying Kaisri did not approve of that. Interestingly, Khunying Kaisri’s predecessor was Uraiwan Thiengthong, wife of Sanoh Thienthong, a senior politician in the Thaksin camp. Here we see that the tradition of appointing family members to key government position is not a taboo for leaders of either faction.

Through both red and yellow governments, the Ministry of Culture has emerged as an important censorship agency for the country. More importantly, it still has not developed a good reputation for empowering the arts. So, there remains a big and urgent problem that yellow and red groups have failed to resolve. There exists an entire ministry in the Thai government that is not doing what it is supposed to do. In other words, a Thai government administration is using our tax money to do something that the law did not intend them to do. Too many of these kinds of ministries would turn Thailand into a failed state.

As to Thai censorship, the monster is alive and well. Wikipedia sums up the situation thusly: “Harassment, manipulation, and strict control of political news was common under the Thaksin government (2001–2006), restrictions and media harassment worsened after a military junta overthrew the Thaksin government in a 2006 coup, and increased in the Abhisit era (2008–2011).”  Here, both yellows and reds share a sad common ground. They either could not get the administration to do what the law intended, or they are both pro-censorship. But one thing is clear: the Ministry, of Culture, or seemingly the Ministry of Censor, was not effective at keeping either party in power, while still infringing on basic human rights of Thai citizens and their freedom of expressions.

Now is the time to be practical about our future. We have a real problem to solve with urgency. Minorities need to feel safe. This is an important stabilising force; in time reds and yellows could become minorities too. Peace is the environment crucial for good business – for most of us. We are going to need both the non-elected institutions and the elected ones to deliver results. Governing a country is a complicated business and without free speech it is probably more difficult. I do not blame any one colour for not knowing exactly what to do, but perhaps this is the time for both sides to stop doing a few things, and try a little harder not to oppress the Thai people.